Archive for the 'History' Category

Academic books potentially coming your way.

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

book boxes

To my academic friends: I just cleared out the storage container you see on the left of the image above, which led to the the many boxes of books stacked in my living room that you see on the right of the image.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be going through all of these boxes.

  • Some of the books will go onto the family bookshelves.
  • Some of them will go onto the shelves in my office.
  • Others will go straight to Recycled Reads.

And then there will be the leftover academic books that fit into none of the three categories above. Most of these will be history, but there will be a fair amount of religion and international relations as well. As I come across these, I’ll post about them here (and share those posts via Facebook and Twitter). If you see books you want, you can inform me via Facebook, Twitter, comments here, e-mail, smoke signals, or whatever. I’ll send you the books you want, with the understanding that you’ll PayPal me the cost of shipping.


Why I Probably Won’t Finish My Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Probably not for me . . .

[This is one of those things that you write once so you can refer people to it over and over. If you’re not interested in my academic history or future, feel free to pass this one by — especially because it’s quite long.]

You’ll have guessed the punchline of this story from its title: it’s likely that I’ll never finish the Ph.D. in United States history that I started in 2004 at the University of Texas. This post explains why. (And don’t worry — it’s a story with a happy ending.) Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s the best U.S. president since World War II?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I nominate Dwight Eisenhower.

This came up yesterday in a conversation at work that spilled over onto Twitter. One big epistemological question that underlies the main question is obvious: What do we mean by “best”?

E.g., some people might look back and say that the answer to the question is LBJ, citing his work to enshrine universal civil rights into U.S. law. Others might say, though, that Johnson’s handling of Vietnam disqualifies him from vying for the title of “best.” Similar arguments could be made against Nixon (Vietnam and Watergate), Reagan (ginormous budget deficits), and so on.

Anyway, feel free to answer these two questions in the comments:

  • Who’s the best U.S. president since World War II?
  • What do you mean by “best”?

Expect a follow-up post or two in this vein . . .


Related posts:


What was that in yesterday’s mail?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Why, a book to which I contributed, that’s what.

Celebrate with me, friends. Yesterday I received a box with this two-volume beauty in it:


The first volume contains my Cold War-esque thoughts on George H. W. Bush and on Computer Technology. For writing those two articles — and my wife was impressed to see that they were long entries, not little tidbits — I got a free copy of the encyclopedia to fondle lovingly and bring out at cocktail parties.

Now, I understand that at $475 it’s not likely to be a big beach read, so I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy your own copy. Heck, I wouldn’t make a penny off of it if you did get that crazy notion. But maybe, someday, when you’re stuck in an out-of-the-way university library waiting for your rendezvous with your spy handler, you can flip open the ol’ Encyclopedia of the Cold War and look for the entries authored by one T. E. Walker.

The “Money Question” and today’s besetting political problems.

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

An idea for your consideration: During the 19th century, the commanding issue of financial politics in the United States was the interrelation of the money supply with a national bank. Andrew Jackson, for one, hated the idea of a national bank.


It’s hard for us to understand today how seriously this issue was taken, how deeply it divided American politicians, and how long it lasted. Party platforms were built around this, and whole sessions of Congress debated it at length and with great bitterness.

The issue lasted for three-quarters of a century, such that seventy years after Jackson rose to the White House, William Jennings Bryan could campaign on the still-controversial issue of a bimetallic currency.


And then came the creation of the Federal Reserve. At which point the issue dried up altogether. Poof.

Not everything works that way. The other great question of the 19th century in U.S. politics — slavery — was even larger, and it was only solved via the bloodiest conflict this hemisphere has ever seen. So I don’t want to suggest that every political issue has such a straightforward solution.

But it’s worth considering: what’s the piece of policy that would erase Issue X, Issue Y, or Issue Z as a bone of contention within U.S. politics? Or within international affairs?

Please, ladle your thoughts upon me in the comment thread.


(Images of Jackson and Bryan via Wikipedia.)

You want some history geekery? [UPDATED]

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

I got yer history geekery right here. For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, I’ve cooked up a chart that tracks the prior government service of every President of the United States. You can have this ultra-spiffy Word document VERSION TWO 2.1 2.2* of this document for the ages for your very own by the simple expedient of . . .

. . . clicking this link.


  • Cmbt. = Military combat experience. Note that for a number of presidents, e.g. Lyndon Johnson, I’m not sure whether their military service involved combat or not, ergo I used parentheses. I excluded a number of military veterans who did not see combat during their military service, e.g. Abraham Lincoln. (This category added for version 2.0.)
  • Law = Practice as a lawyer, or admission to the bar. Note that Theodore Roosevelt’s entry has parentheses because, while he studied law seriously, he never practiced it, nor was he admitted to any state’s bar, so far as I know. (This category added for version 2.0.)
  • Lege. = Service in a colonial or state legislature.
  • Cong. = Service in the Continental Congress or U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Sen. = Service in the U.S. Senate.
  • Gov. = Service as a state governor. Note that William Henry Harrison and William Howard Taft are shown with parentheses because they served as governors of territories or possessions rather than states of the Union.
  • Judge = Service as a judge at any level.
  • Cab. = Service in the cabinet of another President.
  • VP = Service as Vice President of the United States.

No doubt I’ve overlooked or miscoded something along the way, so corrections or additions will be gratefully received.

Correction, Sunday morning, 10 a.m.: William Howard Taft, as everybody knows, never served as Vice President. He was elected President just after serving as Secretary of War. So I fixed this for version 2.1 of the document.

*Corrections, 6 July 2008: Per the comments of “bayesian” below, I amended the combat experience of Pierce, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Ford.

James Thomson on Vietnam, 1968.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

Several weeks ago I printed out this 1968 Atlantic Monthly article, but I only now got around to reading it.

How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy

I found the link to the article on James Fallows’s blog. Fallows writes this about it:

James C. Thomson Jr.’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” might seem somewhat obvious in its analysis now. But when it came out — weeks after the Tet offensive in 1968, days before Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election — it was electrifying in its originality and insight. Thomson, who had been raised in China by missionary parents, was then in his mid-30s and had recently left the government in opposition to the war policy. He was a a brand-new and very popular college professor when I met him, as a student, around this time. In a sense all journalistic and even historical attempts to explain foreign policy failures flow from the approach he took in this article.

Thomson’s article makes for compelling reading. In it, he focuses on the ways that institutional agendas and inertia served to paint the United States into a corner vis-a-vis Vietnam. And Fallows is quite right about how influential Thomson’s take has been; reading the article, it was hard to remember that it was written in medias res in 1968, rather than at some safe, scholarly remove of decades.

You can draw your own conclusions about how well or how poorly the situation Thomson describes parallels what has happened with the current Administration’s Iraq policy. It certainly offers much food for thought.

Low-tech history geekery.

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

“Low-tech” in the sense that it’s just a GIF that morphs over time:


Why I stumbled across this now: I’m wrapping up my final-exam grading, and the essay question on the test calls on students’ knowledge of the Missouri Compromise — a key element of which was the counterbalancing of Maine as a newly admitted free state against Missouri as a slave state.

(Tip o’ the hat to Wikipedia.)

Restore the stolen title of the Pottsville Maroons!

Monday, November 19th, 2007

The 1925 NFL title should have gone to the Pottsville Maroons, not the Chicago Cardinals.  Dave Fleming, who has just published a book on the Maroons, explains why in this long and rambling but highly entertaining interview on Joe Posnanski’s blog:

Breaker Breaker: An Interview With Dave Fleming

Now I’m considering setting up a Facebook group for this.  No, wait, that would be addition, not subtraction, from the complexity in my life.  So, if anybody else wants to take that up . . .

The Secretary might also have benefited from watching “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

This Michael Hirsh piece from Newsweek discusses Secretary Rice’s recent comments that the U.S. might have paid more attention earlier on to the balance between local, provincial, and central administration in Iraq.

You think?

Here’s the key bit conveying Secretary Rice’s comments:

“I’m sure there are lots of things we might have done better,” she said. “I’ll give you one with Iraq. If I had to do it all over again, we would have had the balance between center, local and provincial better. But that’s the kind of thing you learn over time.”

Rice has admitted on occasion that the U.S. government made “tactical” mistakes in Iraq, but rarely has she gone into specifics. Reminded that Mideast scholars had long advised that controlling Iraq would require winning over local, provincial and tribal authorities, Rice said, “I would like to go back and find out who gave that [advice] … Arab states can be very centralized. This is actually a fairly new model of local and provincial responsibility. I don’t think it was self-evident that this was the case.”

Before reading any further in the article, I repeated this part to my wife, who was sitting in the room with me. It’s no insult to my wife to say that she typically takes little interest in history or foreign affairs. (We joke about how different we are in this regard.) But she responded immediately that anyone who had ever watched Lawrence of Arabia would understand at least the basics of historical strife among groups within the Arab world. Even a fictional depiction like that conveys this basic message.

Not only is my wife right about this, her comments are borne out by area experts later in the Newsweek article:

Both [Larry] Diamond [of the Hoover Institution] and another Iraq scholar, Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University (NDU), say that just about every expert in the region, going back to the British occupation after World War I, has known how crucial it was to build relations with the provinces and tribal leaders in Iraq. Prewar reports by both the Future of Iraq Project, run out of the State Department, and NDU had emphasized this at a time when Rice was national security adviser, Yaphe says. “If you look at Saddam’s rule, he knew very well how important local and tribal leaders were,” says Yaphe. She also says that Rice’s idea that this was a “fairly new model” is wrong. “It seems to me anybody in that area understands that full well. That’s how that system has operated there for a long time.”

Setting aside any comment on the Bush Administration’s overarching Iraq policy — i.e. the basic decision to go in — this is an area where it has flatly failed until recently. Not sort of, not only when looked at in a certain light. It’s been failure, plain and simple, to deal with sectarian issues that were easy to predict — and which were predicted by Iraq experts — before U.S. forces ever set foot in the country.

I’m glad we’re dealing with it now.  We should have been dealing with it much earlier.